BY ART BUKOWSKI
TRAVERSE CITY — A ballot initiative designed to return Traverse City Light & Power to city commission control could prompt uncertainty in customers' rates, the region's largest chamber of commerce contends.
But the woman behind the ballot effort accused the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce of jumping into the issue to "promote fear" and said chamber officials shouldn't have taken a stance without speaking to people on both sides of the issue.
The chamber this week issued a statement that opposes a Nov. 2 ballot issue that would restructure control of Light & Power and speculates electric rates could become unstable if voters approve the measure launched by former Traverse City Mayor Margaret Dodd.
Light & Power has its own seven-member board and operates largely independent of city-commission control, and the initiative essentially would make the utility no different than any other city department.
Dodd and fellow members of Michigan Citizens for Energy, the Economy and Environment were upset at Light & Power's promotion of a local wood-burning biomass plant, and they believe commission control would result in more transparency and accountability in local power decisions.
Chamber President and CEO Doug Luciani said he understands Dodd's concerns, and that Light & Power board members have made "their share of mistakes."
But he's concerned about overhauling the entire system based on a public vote alone, especially since other options haven't been studied or discussed in depth.
"We need to have a system that we can count on," he said. "If this one isn't the right one, then let's all talk about what is right."
Dodd said she's concerned that the chamber issued its statement without speaking with her or her group.
"I'm surprised the chamber would even make a statement. I would like to sit down and talk with them about how they reached this bizarre conclusion," she said. "I don't know why they think anything would change, other than people would know what the hell is going on."
Luciani said the chamber paid close attention to media coverage of biomass talks and ballot issues, so chamber officials are well aware of Dodd's group's position.
"We looked at this through the lens that we look at all things: How will this affect business?" he said.
Proponents of Light & Power's current structure contend it insulates board members from making decisions for political reasons. Light & Power board members are appointed by the city commission, so they don't have to worry about re-election.
Lucinani contends politicizing the system could lead to a "tremendous amount of uncertainty" in rates, something that would make Traverse City much less desirable for businesses.
Light & Power Executive Director Ed Rice said he couldn't comment on the chamber's stance, though he said Light & Power always has done a good job managing rates.
"I think Light & Power has done an excellent job at keeping rates considerably lower than other utilities," he said.
Light & Power Board Chairman Mike Coco and Vice Chairwoman Linda Johnson couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.